‘Stax: Soulsville, U.S.A.’ Review: Looking for a Little Respect


Multipart music documentaries come at us these days with the insistence and abundance of the old K-tel collections, scrambling to satisfy the cravings of every variety of pop nostalgist. Recent months have added “James Brown: Say It Loud” (A&E), “In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon” (MGM+), “Kings From Queens: The Run DMC Story” (Peacock) and “Thank You, Goodnight: The Bon Jovi Story” (Hulu), among others, to the rotation.

That’s four Rock & Roll Hall of Fame acts right there. But if you are looking for something even bigger — the arc of America across the 1960s and ’70s, set to a rough and infectious soundtrack — I know a place: “Stax: Soulsville, U.S.A.,” premiering Monday on HBO.

The stormy, relatively short history of Stax Records (it went from founding to bankruptcy in 18 years) is rich material, shaped by a serendipitous blend of personality, geography and studio acoustics and propelled by the regional dynamics of race, class and music in Memphis, away from the record-industry centers of New York and Los Angeles.

The director Jamila Wignot, who has profiled Alvin Ailey for “American Masters” and directed episodes of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s “Finding Your Roots,” brings more organizational sense than imaginative flair to the four-episode series. “Soulsville, U.S.A.” gives a conventional talking-heads treatment to a story that calls out for more. But that story, tracking from innocence to cynicism and triumph to calamity, is so involving that Wignot’s straightforward approach isn’t fatal.

And the interviewees doing the talking are a notably varied and engaging group. They include the white farm boy Jim Stewart, earnest, folksy and disastrously naïve, who founded the label with his sister Estelle Axton; the charismatic Black businessman Al Bell, who came on as promotions director and saved the company when it seemed doomed, only to preside over its eventual demise; and Booker T. Jones, leader of the house band Booker T. and the M.G.’s, who looms over the early episodes like a cool, cryptic, scholarly guru of soul.

The story of Stax begins with Stewart and Axton’s willingness, born of both openness and necessity, to work with the musicians who happened to be around, many of whom were Black and untested. (Jones relates the well-known anecdote of how he was pulled out of his high school algebra class for his first Stax session.) Stewart quickly abandoned country music and embraced the urgent, deeply felt rhythm and blues and Southern soul that performers like Carla and Rufus Thomas, Sam & Dave, and Otis Redding provided, backed by Booker T. and the M.G.’s and shepherded by songwriter-producers like Isaac Hayes and David Porter.

The early Stax hits, as the company’s fortunes steadily rose through the mid-60s, flow through the first two hours of “Soulsville U.S.A.,” and they carry you along on a continual, grinning high. The electrifying live performances include Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’” during the European tour that certified the label’s ascendance and Redding’s epochal “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” at the Monterey Pop festival. (The series uses a fair bit of footage from D.A. Pennebaker’s “Monterey Pop” documentary and the 1973 concert film “Wattstax,” but the performances are riveting no matter how many times you’ve seen them.)

“Soulsville, U.S.A.” divides neatly into two halves, the first culminating in the catastrophes that almost took Stax down the first time around: Redding’s death in a plane crash in 1967 followed by Atlantic Records’ appropriation of nearly the entire Stax catalog in 1968, the result of a contract Stewart had signed but not read. The second half becomes more about business and culture and less about music, as Bell revives the company and rides the Black power movement to a new level of national prominence (with Hayes’s Oscar-winning “Theme From ‘Shaft’” and the Wattstax concert) but runs afoul of another major-label partner, CBS Records, and can’t stop a quick slide into bankruptcy.

In the last two installments Jones, who left the label in 1970, fades out and the primary voices are those of Bell and the former Stax publicity director Deanie Parker. The story they tell is that the upstart company was killed off by a racist record industry and a racist Memphis business establishment specifically because it was Black-led and, eventually, Black-owned. It’s easy enough to believe, but the lack of less partial, more analytical voices is noticeable and unfortunate. (Some context is provided by the music writer Rob Bowman, whose book “Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records” is credited as a primary source for the documentary.)

It has been nearly half a century since Stax existed as anything more than a name on a reissue label, a fate poignantly conveyed by the onscreen message, following the HBO logo, “In association with Polygram Entertainment, Concord Originals, Warner Music Entertainment” — the companies that own the Stax songs on the soundtrack. As Al Bell says, “The big fish eat the little fish.” But the songs can still take you there.



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